The Angst and Anger of 1971

Published: March 1, 2013 - 16:18

Bangladesh has erupted in massive secular protests demanding justice against Islamists who unleashed mass murder and rape during the liberation war
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood Dhaka

Hanged! They’re going to hang him!”

The cry rang out and thousands of activists in Shahbag Square, the hub of protests in the heart of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka, erupted in celebration.

Each day for three weeks, thousands of people, mostly young activists coordinating through facebook and twitter, have gathered here, a tree-lined square flanking Dhaka University, demanding death penalty for those on trial for war crimes committed in 1971, when Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, declared independence.

On February 28, 2013, the war crimes tribunal found Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, a leader of the opposition Jamaat-e-Islami party and a well-known Islamic preacher, guilty on eight counts, including murder, arson, rape and religious persecution, according to lawyers connected to the tribunal. The decision was the court’s third after it earlier found two other Jamaat-e-Islami members guilty of crimes against humanity.

But, in an indication of the 40-year-old rifts that still dog the country, riots erupted across Bangladesh as thousands of opposition activists, mostly from the hardline Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist party, took to the streets and locked in fierce clashes with police. Till the last count, at least 50 people have died in Bangladesh in countrywide rioting hours after the verdict.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians died in the war, many of them at the hands of the Islamist militia who opposed independence and wanted Bangladesh to remain part of Pakistan. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government set up the war crimes tribunal two years ago and pledged it would adhere to standards of international justice. Some human rights groups have criticised the trials citing politicisation and procedural flaws.

The prosecution said Sayedee was a Razakar (collaborator) and charged him with the offences of murder, abduction, torture, rape, persecution, forcible religious conversion and abetment at his locality during the Liberation War in 1971.

Out of the 20-count charges brought against Sayedee on October 3, 2011, the prosecution proved eight charges beyond any reasonable doubt, said the tribunal. “It was well proved that accused Sayedee substantially contributed and facilitated in killing Ibrahim Kutty and Bisa Bali as listed in charges Nos 8 and 10,” the tribunal said.

After the verdict, crowds exploded in joyful celebration in Dhaka’s central Shahbag Square, a leafy boulevard where hundreds of thousands of people have gathered over the last three weeks, demanding death for Islamist politicians on trial for war crimes.

“Yes! We want all of them to be hanged and their parties banned,” said Irtiza Masum, a 25-year-old student who said he has been participating in the Shahbag rallies regularly for three weeks.

But opposition activists also took to the streets across the country, leading to fierce clashes with police. Local police officials and hospital staff said at least 30 people had died in countrywide violence, most of them activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Two policemen and a ruling party activist have also been killed in the rioting, according to police. The casualty figure is expected to rise as clashes continue.

The protests underscore the deep divisions in Bangladesh over the 1971 war. Many middle-class urban residents with a secular outlook back the call for harsher sentences at the war crimes tribunal. In contrast, Islamist parties draw support in parts of rural areas.

Human-rights groups have said the trials fall short of internationally accepted standards of justice, a charge the government denies. Sam Zarifi, Asia director for the International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based legal advocacy, said the current criticism of the war crimes process could lead to deeper divisions in Bangladesh rather than healing wounds of the 1971 civil war. The war crimes trials face "serious problems that undermine its legitimacy," said Zarifi.

Much of the mistrust between Islamists and secularists is rooted in Bangladesh's tumultuous past. Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan in 1971. The Pakistani army fought and lost a brutal nine-month war with Bengali liberation fighters and Indian forces that had intervened.

In 2010, Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister, and daughter of wartime political leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, set up a war crimes tribunal to investigate widespread atrocities committed during the 1971 conflict -- a move she said would bring closure for victims and families and heal the rifts of war. At that time, the Pakistani army too (often, along with Razakars) unleashed unprecedented brutality, including mass murder, murders of intellectuals in Dhaka, and organised gangrapes. A huge number of women suffered sexual assaults and relentless violence.

The leader of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, the widow of the independence war's best-known military commander, has accused Hasina of politicising the tribunal and conveniently using it to hound her political enemies. All of the 10 people indicted for war crimes by the tribunal are opposition politicians, eight of them from the Jamaat-e-Islami, the country's largest Islamist party and an ally of Zia's BNP.

The protesters, however, have ratcheted up the pressure, saying they will continue to camp at Shahbag Square until all of the accused currently before the war crimes tribunal are given the death sentence. They have pushed a broader set of demands, including banning the Jamaat-e-Islami and confiscating businesses linked to Islamist groups.

"We are protesting 40 years of injustice," said Lucky Akter, 23, a student and member of a Leftwing political part. Lucky has become one of the faces of the protest with her fiery slogans. "We want those who collaborated with the Pakistan army hanged and their finances cut off."

Analysts say the broader demands from the Shahbag gathering show how the rifts of the past continue to play a major role in Bangladesh's present. "There is an ideological basis to protests," said Muhammad Musa, a former newspaper editor. "There is the widespread perception that the Jamaat-e-Islami supported Pakistan during the war and should answer for this."

In the last week of February, a crowd in thousands gathered in Shahbag Square, joining a hardcore group of activists, waving flags and chanting slogans, such as, "Hang, hang, hang them all!" and, "The weapons of '71 must fire again!"

The Jamaat-e-Islami, whose activists have waged violent street agitations against the tribunal, says it is being made a scapegoat. Shafiqul Islam Masud, a party leader, said many people were blurring the difference between a political position and war crimes. "There are only about 50 people active in the party now who took any kind of a political position 42 years ago," he said. "It's possible some of them did not want to secede from Pakistan, but that's a far cry from war crimes. The party accepted the sovereignty of Bangladesh and is a registered political party, represented in Parliament."

Bangladesh has erupted in massive secular protests demanding justice against Islamists who unleashed mass murder and rape during the liberation war
Syed Zain Al-Mahmood Dhaka

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